Burnout has been recognised by the WHO as a legitimate medical condition, arising from chronic workplace stress. It’s essential to recognise the warning signs and to take swift action, says Peta Bee.
SLAMMED by unpredictable hours and heavy workloads, drowning in the ever-present pressures of social media, we are succumbing in droves to the physical and mental breakdown of burnout. And, in a nod to its prevalence, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recently recognised burnout as a legitimate medical condition.
In an update of its International Classification of Diseases handbook, used as a benchmark for diagnosis by doctors, burnout is described by WHO as “a syndrome” that arises “from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”.
It’s the lowest point of a slippery slope, reached only when negative feelings are constant and pervasive to the point that they become debilitating.
Researchers at the Yale University Centre for Emotional Intelligence (2018), showed that as many as one in five ‘highly engaged’ employees is at risk of burnout. But studies have shown it to be on the rise among doctors, nurses, students, teachers and social workers. Up to 36% of parents experience parental burnout — the fallout of trying to juggle the kids’ social and school lives alongside your own pressures. It is everywhere and yet thinking you are close to it because you feel tired and stressed is to undersell the syndrome — it occurs only when stress prevents us from functioning normally.
Dr Aria Campbell-Danesh, a psychologist who works with people who have high-pressured business and celebrity careers — — says the tipping point is different for everyone, but just feeling exhausted is rarely the real deal.
“We all have different responses to stressors in our lives,” says Campbell-Danesh.
Know the warning signs
Burnout exists on the stress spectrum of our lives, but at a specific point that is unique to us all. Cumulative work stress is a major contributor — the drip-feed of working later, responding to emails at weekends, less family time — but research also suggests that negative life events, such as the death or illness of a close family member, relationship conflict and health difficulties, can also be a trigger. The key is to recognise when it is looming.
Psychologists use the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) to assess the risks which usually amount to emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation — a sense of feeling detached from your job — and a lack of personal accomplishment or a feeling that nothing worthwhile is being achieved. But there are signs that you can look for yourself.
“There can be a gender difference in that women will recognise that they feel exhausted, with increased cynicism at work and will derive less meaning from their work,” says chartered psychologist, Allison Keating, author of The Secret Lives of Adults and owner of the bWell clinic in Malahide. “Men tend not to relate their burnout to their achievement outcomes at work even though their colleagues may have noticed their increased cynicism and disengagement.”
Keep tabs on lifestyle habits
Siobhán Murray, a Dublin-based psychotherapist and author of The Burnout Solution (Gill Books), says you should be aware of lifestyle habits changing in a bid to alleviate stress in unhealthy ways — your energy levels plummeting so that you fall out of exercising regularly or increased alcohol consumption, for example.
“Some of the signs and symptoms of burnout are very similar to depression,” says Murray.
“Burnout occurs when you’re continually exposed to stress and anxiety, but not letting go.”
As your work/life balance will head off-kilter, your motivation plummets and your ability to tackle everyday tasks at home and work becomes compromised. Friends and family might notice that you are more irritable, unpredictable and difficult to be around, meaning close friendships are fractured. You might also be more prone to colds and viruses, insomnia or interrupted sleep patterns.
Check your diet
What you eat can have a big impact on your body’s capacity to deal with stress. Consuming foods rich in B vitamins such as wholegrains, eggs and dark leafy vegetables can help the body to release energy from food so that it can fight stress.
Low levels of magnesium are linked to stress and anxiety, too, so pack in the nuts, seeds and legumes. Taking a probiotic can help — recent studies have shown that taking a supplement of Lactobacillus (L.) rhamnosus can significantly reduce anxiety.
Avoiding red meat might exacerbate problems — a study of 1,000 people at Deakin University Food and Mood Centre showed that cutting out red meat completely was associated with more anxiety/depressive episodes. When people ate 65-100g a week of red meat it was shown to halve the probability of their anxiety.
A loss of control in life is an overriding feeling of many at risk of burnout. Studies have shown that setting and achieving even small goals can lead to increased production of dopamine, a chemical responsible for the brain’s pleasure and reward system.
Making ‘to do’ lists of tiny tasks can be helpful — as long as it doesn’t lead to you feeling more overloaded. Your brain may receive a spike in dopamine if you tick off a small task such as drinking more water, eating more vegetables or walking more often.
“Set small goals every day and it really helps with motivation,” says Dearbhla McCullough, a sports psychologist who has worked with many athletes who have signs of burnout.
“Accomplishing even small takes that you have set yourself will help to relieve anxiety.”
Gentle and recuperative activity is a must. In 2015, psychologists at the University of New England asked a group of 49 men and women with burnout symptoms to follow a programme of either cardiovascular exercise — such as walking or jogging — or resistance exercise — such as lifting weights — or to do no physical activity at all. After four weeks, all of the exercisers reported less psychological distress and emotional exhaustion.
Yoga can be helpful too. Last February, a review by Italian researchers suggested it helped to manage and prevent burnout in healthcare workers. But something as simple as a daily walk is beneficial.
“Everyone can go for a 15 to 20-minute walk, or take two 10-minute walks,” says Murray. “It doesn’t have to be an expensive gym session.”
Just don’t overdo it. “What you don’t want is for exercise to become another source of stress and exhaustion,” says Campbell-Danesh.
Monitor stress levels
Understanding how you normally respond to stress and when this is changing can be crucial in the prevention of burnout.
“Stress is subjective and personal,” Keating says.
“The best indicator of burnout is when you know what is not normal to you. [Watch for] a constant state of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion; feeling constantly busy yet unproductive; a loss of confidence and identity; a frustrated, disengaged flighty and sometimes flat feeling that doesn’t lift after a good night’s sleep.”
It helps to acknowledge what is making you anxious and nervous. “Without stressing over your stress levels, become more aware of what is causing them,” says Keating. “And the best way to identifying them is to write down what is stressing you.”
Rest and sleep are the best ways of avoiding and treating burnout. A Swedish study in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology (2012) found insufficient sleep was one of the main risk factors for subsequent burnout. And insomnia or interrupted sleep are often a symptom of burnout.
Good sleep hygiene is important — don’t take phones into the bedroom, avoid caffeine and other stimulants before bed, make sure your curtains, mattress and pillows are helping, not hindering, your sleep. But so too is general rest and recuperation. Just don’t make sleep — or lack of it — another source of stress.
“Yes, sleep is integral to reducing stress. However, stressing over your lack or disrupted sleep will do you more harm,” says Keating. “If you can’t sleep after a reasonable amount of time. Get up, write out your worries, take a few deep breaths (4x4 breath — breathe in for four, hold for four, breathe out for four), read and when you feel sleepy go to bed. You can do a body scan or sleep meditation to guide your mind and body into the sleep state.”
And sometimes just accept that you are not going to drop off immediately.
“Recognising that your body is resting and that it is beneficial, even when you’d prefer to be asleep, takes the frustration out of restlessness and being awake,” Keating says.